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Respekt in English

Stsiapan's Gold Mine

A young man is counting on a revolution in the minds of Belarusians

Podivuhodná existence, normální přání. (Stěpan Putsila) • Autor: Matěj Stránský
Podivuhodná existence, normální přání. (Stěpan Putsila) • Autor: Matěj Stránský

WARSAW | When hundreds of thousands of Belarusians demonstrated in the streets last August against the falsified presidential election results and dictator Alyaksandr Lukashenka called the protests “organized from abroad,” he was absolutely correct. It is actually very easy to find the location from which Belarus's nationwide defiance of the regime is being organized. That would be Wiejska Street in the center of Warsaw, not far from the Polish Parliament.

You don't need an exact address to find Lukashenka’s opponents – the [banned] red and white Belarusian flag is flying there from the balcony of a light-colored, plastered building roughly midway up the street. Two police officers are on guard all day down by the entrance to keep unannounced visitors from entering. Inside, a staircase which has seen better days leads up to the first floor and two small offices filled with books, computers, and different kinds of technological odds and ends. This is the headquarters of Nexta, the group of young Belarusians without whom the Belarusian protests, as observers and the demonstrators themselves agree, would never have lasted as long as they have and would have been smothered by harsh police repression long before now.

From the laptops on the desks at Nexta, two million Belarusians receive several updates daily by mobile phone. That was crucial in the fall, when the protests were in full swing. Nexta (pronounced “nyekhta,” the Belarusian word for “somebody”) communicates through their account on the popular social network Telegram, and this, the main medium of the Belarusian opposition, is led by a tall 22-year-old, Stsiapan Putsila, who seems timid at first glance.

Nexta serves as an information crossroads. During the protests last year, people learned from its messages where to go for the next demonstration and where exactly the police were intervening. Instructions on how quickly one should rinse one’s eyes after a tear gas attack are mixed in with video messages from the leaders of the opposition. Video footage of police brutality accompanied by indignant editorial commentary prompted more and more people to protest.

“Nobody else was able to organize the protests. Inside Belarus, nobody would have remained free [who did so]. Nobody else abroad has as big an audience as we do,” Putsila says of the role Nexta played last fall.

All six current members of Nexta know how to take perfect advantage of the digital tools available to them, so the fact that they are sitting in offices in Warsaw hundreds of kilometers away from the Belarusian streets has played no role. The inconspicuous young Putsila may not have achieved European celebrity like other faces of the Belarusian opposition, but he has won the hatred of the Lukashenka regime all the same, and to a greater extent. The police officers down by the building entrance are armed. Just inside the office doors, four screens display what is happening in the offices themselves and in adjacent spaces. Putsila is being filmed by four security cameras while he tells us his story in a relaxed way – just in case the Belarusian secret services decide to silence Nexta by force.

Nás zavřít nemohli. (Tým Nexty při práci) • Autor: Matěj Stránský
Nás zavřít nemohli. (Tým Nexty při práci) • Autor: Matěj Stránský

In any event, the Belarusian regime has issued an international arrest warrant for Putsila as a “terrorist” and he is therefore only safe in the European Union and a couple of other states in the Western world that refuse to recognize the arrest warrant from Belarus because it is motivated politically. Putsila is calm about this, though. “I have no concerns. I have friends here, I have lived here a long time, and I am certain that here is where I am of most use. From abroad I am doing as much as I possibly can for Belarus,” says the head of Nexta, who, just like the rest of the Belarusian protest movement is currently getting ready for the next steps in this exceptional journey with the advent of spring.

Luxury Cars for the People

It is undoubtedly true that Belarusians have displayed admirable bravery and grit during their fight with the dictatorship over these many months and have won the sympathy of the entire West. Despite that, at this moment the score appears to show that it is Lukashenka’s regime that has won the fight. Below-freezing temperatures and harsh repression got people off the streets during the winter, and the police haven’t even bothered to arrest the last participants in the intermittent, small rallies that have been held. Judging by its public activities, Nexta seemed to have also fallen into a similar hibernation. There was nothing going on for them to organize.

It became clear that the team on Wiejska Street had not been idle when a film they produced, Zolotoe dno (Gold Mine), appeared on YouTube in early March. Over the last three weeks it has been watched more than 6 million times. The available data and qualified estimates indicate the film has been seen by all who are eligible to vote in Belarus. That means each voter there has thus learned that Lukashenka, who enjoys boasting of his modesty and material simplicity, has been building and maintaining, with state money, approximately 10 huge luxury residences in different picturesque corners of [Belarus], designed in a bizarre, Oriental style, where the gilded bathtub taps or vast, two-story high winter gardens are the more sober parts of the interior design.

Officially, these resorts belong to “all of the [Belarusian] people,” but in practice they are used as the dictator’s private property. Just their upkeep alone costs the state tens of millions of dollars per month. Similarly, the Belarusian people “own,” through Lukashenka, a collection of luxury automobiles worth millions of dollars, as well as a secret medical clinic for Lukashenka’s intimates. The people in one of Europe’s poorest countries, which for years has been surviving only thanks to subsidies from its Russian neighbor, “were left staring open-mouthed and feeling like fools,” as one viewer of the film wrote. It took Nexta four months to produce the film from Warsaw, and its release has once again shifted the frustration over Lukashenka’s government into a higher gear.

Na něco jsme přišli... (Film Zlaté dno)
Na něco jsme přišli... (Film Zlaté dno)

“Originally we wanted to just produce something short, merely to remind people who Lukashenka is,” Putsila says. Gradually, while working on the film, they began to receive more documentation of powerful examples of corruption and waste, and more eyewitnesses and people willing to describe the reality of Belarus’s elite life at the very top got in touch with them. The result is an hour-long investigative film, based on publicly available footage, on videos that were secretly made in Belarus, and on interviews. Relatively highly-placed members of the regime spoke anonymously on camera for the film.

In addition to mapping the gigantic construction projects that Lukashenka was inspired to undertake after visiting dictators in Central Asia’s post-communist countries, many Belarusians have also been able to learn about minor details, such as how the ruler stretches his legs riding a foreign bicycle that costs as much as a year’s average salary in Belarus. “It was clear to us we had gotten our hands on something big. I guess it was a success,” Putsila says with a pleased smile. The popularity of the film – which in the eyes of Belarusians has clearly, definitively refuted the image of Lukashenka as a modest man of the people, a ruler who eats bread with lard – confirms his words.

By making this documentary, Putsila has returned to his original love and profession. He is a graduate of the film school in Katowice, Poland. He established Nexta during his studies, at first as a YouTube channel, then later moved it to Telegram. His brief video blogs (a favorite genre in the post-Soviet space) criticizing Belarusian corruption and suppression of human rights earned the channel popularity and him criminal prosecution. Since 2018 it has been clear he will end up behind bars if he crosses the border back into Belarus.

For that reason, Putsila has not been home in three years, moving from Katowice to Warsaw after graduation. He does not have to miss his family, though – in 2019 the authorities gave his parents an ultimatum: Either they convince their “unsuccessful” son to stop his anti-regime activities, or one of them (or maybe Stsiapan’s younger brother) would end up behind bars. Eventually all his loved ones preferred to relocate to Warsaw. Poland is accommodating in such cases, issuing work visas right away for people who flee Belarus, which makes beginning their new lives easier – although even so, the decision was a difficult one. “That was a great sacrifice from their side. They were unable to know back then what would happen after the presidential elections and that Nexta would become so important. It worked out fine, it was worth it and I managed not to disappoint them,” Putsila says about his family’s exile.

As we interview Putsila, a meeting is taking place in the next office. The final Saturday in March is coming up [after this issue of Respekt went to press], and the leadership of the opposition, mainly presidential candidate Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who has already been in exile in Lithuania for more than six months, has called for more big protest marches in Minsk and other cities. With the spring weather, they want to return the clash between the Lukashenka government and the rest of society to the streets once more. Nexta is also getting ready, and on Wednesday [31 March] they plan to send this message to the phones of two million people: “Have the police come into your apartment? Here are instructions on what to do.”

... něco ještě zbývá zjistit. (Z kanceláře Nexty) • Autor: Matěj Stránský
... něco ještě zbývá zjistit. (Z kanceláře Nexty) • Autor: Matěj Stránský

Putsila himself naturally wants as many people as possible to take to the Belarusian streets on Saturday and as many people as possible to make it home without being harmed. “If the numbers won’t be enormous, that doesn’t matter. What can be seen on the streets is important, but it’s not everything. The revolution is still going on in people’s minds,” he says, adding a hope that his film can provoke that mental revolution just as, in the fall, Nexta kept the admirably long-lasting demonstrations going with their information service.

It seems the revolution in Belarusian minds is actually on the march. In a poll conducted by a Berlin-based think tank called the Center for East European and International Studies, 57 percent of Belarusians surveyed said they are “currently taking far more interest” in politics than they did before the post-election protests last year. Three-fourths said their main source of information was channels on the Telegram network (of which Nexta is by far the biggest), while just one-10th said they take the government-aligned television channels seriously.

Strength in Courtyards

In a new office building on the opposite side of downtown Warsaw from Nexta's offices, Volha Kavalkova is sitting with her 10-member team. The longstanding member of the opposition became Tsikhanouskaya’s spokesperson ahead of the August elections and was forcibly deported into exile in Poland by the Belarusian authorities at the beginning of September. Currently she is a member of the Coordination Council, a kind of opposition Belarusian government-in-exile, working from a well-equipped office that her team shares with several startups.

Kavalkova confirms to us what Putsila has said about the importance of people undergoing an internal transformation, and it is plain to see that questions of the strength or weakness of the spring continuation of the street protests are slightly infuriating to her. “It’s not possible to ask people to turn out in order to be beaten up for the rest of time. Thousands of people have been beaten, tens of thousands were sent to jail, hundreds of thousands have seen something like that happen in their neighborhoods,” she said. “This is not about resigning ourselves. This is about an acceptance of our reality, police brutality unlike anything any of us can remember is the reality.”

Instead of engaging in highly visible mass protests, Belarusians today are, for example, boycotting firms closely associated with the regime. Opposition figures Respekt has spoken with describe a certain change of strategy. While previously they concentrated their efforts predominantly beyond Belarus with the aim of galvanizing international pressure on Lukashenka, currently they are doing their best to win over members of the administration who could lose patience with the brutal dictator in time. The willingness of some to risk collaborating with Nexta on the recent documentary film indicates the opposition has not lost that battle.

Maximálně zaručit bezpečí. (Volha Kavalkova) • Autor: Matěj Stránský
Maximálně zaručit bezpečí. (Volha Kavalkova) • Autor: Matěj Stránský

The main transformation, however, is playing out in the courtyards between apartment buildings in big cities. Kavalkova describes Belarusian civil society having created the institution of “courtyard foreman” during the winter. This is a person entrusted with frequent communication with leadership of the opposition and who functions as a link between them and tens or as many as hundreds of neighbors. Kavalkova has just finished one such telephone call and another awaits her in the evening.

The courtyard foremen speak among themselves and with the government-in-exile on closed Telegram discussion groups. That is also partially to the credit of Nexta, which demonstrated the advantages of the encrypted, indestructible social network – invented by Russian engineer Pavel Durov and highly appreciated by all opposition movements in Asia and Eastern Europe – on a grand scale. “When we discuss sensitive matters, we anonymize the discussion group members so as to maximally guarantee their safety,” Kavalkova says. “Many are now in prison. We cannot allow more people to end up in prison for planning these protests.”

What Next?

The sun is setting over Warsaw and Putsila is beginning to grow nervous after sitting for more than an hour of conversation. All hands are needed on deck in the next room to prepare for Saturday. Looking further ahead, his ideas about the future of his enormously popular channel go beyond his current activism.

“I don’t want to be a revolutionary anymore,” he says. “People in Belarus don’t need agitators anymore, they have enough of those, but they do need a strong, independent media outlet.” Putsila is working on the idea of remaking Nexta as the brand of a new outlet for citizen journalism, with professional editors to “verify it and contextualize it.” He also wants to shoot more films – the success of his first one will be difficult to repeat, but it has been an inspiration. “However, all of that is not absolutely thought through yet,” he says, smiling and shrugging his shoulders. Saturday comes next, and Nexta will play the same role there that it has so far – which, after all, is what it knows how to do best.

Translated by Gwendolyn Albert. Vychází ve spolupráci s TransitionsOnline

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